Scholars' Lab Blog //Sister of Notable Woman: Henrietta Bird
Blog //Sister of Notable Woman: Henrietta Bird

Henrietta Bird is undeniably present in the works of her older, more famous sister, Isabella Bird, who joins Mary Kingsley, Constance Gordon Cumming, etc. in the canon of nineteenth-century, British, female travel writers. Isabella has been well regarded as a missionary, adventurer, anthropologist, and author.1 Thirteen biographies on Isabella appear in the Collective Biographies of Women (CBW) database,2 in which she is primarily typed as “missionary” and “traveler.” Henrietta, though little discussed, was key to her sister’s success if only because Isabella’s first four books, The English Woman in America, The Hawaiian Archipelago, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, and Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, were adapted from letters to her. The first drafts were tailored to Henrietta—detailing events she would find interesting, omitting events she might find inappropriate, and phrased to prevent any sisterly worry. Later letters were inevitably influenced by Henrietta’s responses, to which modern readers are not privy. Though Henrietta, was a major influence in both the events of Isabella’s life and the content of her writings, in a number of these biographies, she is referred to only as “her sister” until she dies on June 5, 1880, casting her, perhaps, in a role comparable to one of the common persona types in CBW, “sister of notable woman,” as opposed to “wife of notable man”; she is a compelling woman known by a relationship rather than by her accomplishments. The omission or minimization of Henrietta in these biographies is a form of editing, glorifying one person at the expense of another.

Evidence suggests Henrietta was actively involved in the production of Isabella’s books. In her collection of Isabella’s previously unpublished letters, Letters to Henrietta,3 Kay Chubbuck asks, “If the ‘genuine voice of Isabella speaks from these letters, then perhaps it is the more scholarly Henrietta who speaks through her books? . . . . It was Isabella’s routine when she returned home to excise a mass of personal detail, while adding in its place intellectual gravitas” (12).4 Chubbuck goes on to note that “on comparing these [original] letters with Isabella’s published work . . . There is nothing in Isabella’s ‘on the spot’ observations like the ‘scholarly enthusiasm’ she attributes to them, nor are there many passages that would be ‘most interesting to scientific people’. The ethnography, geography, politics, and history that appear in The Hawaiian Archipelago are simply not there,” and letters between Isabella and John Murray Ⅲ (Bird’s publisher) indicate he did not add such information (13). Henrietta, however, was well educated and likely suggested such scholarly edits. Isabella notes in an 1889 letter to her good friend Ella Blackie:

One thing out of many which made my letters to her what they were was the singular amount of her accumulated knowledge of countries, of their geography, products, government, ethnology, religions and botany. She always read and took notes of the best travels, comparing them with naturalists and other books on the same subjects. . . She could supply so much to fill me in or correct the outlines. She informed. (qtd. in Chubbuck 13)

Henrietta sought out the kind information that was incorporated between first draft and publication, information that Isabella owns she relied on for the success of her books.

One of the major capabilities of digital humanities generally and CBW specifically is the recovery of women and their work, a process that is certainly not complete, as the case of Henrietta helps demonstrate. She was white, British, Christian, and published, 5 the demographic of women most commonly represented in history, and still far from a name that prompts interest even in the academic community—even in the biographies of her sister and regular correspondent. Frequently, biographies in CBW feature long digressions about another figure—usually a lover, sometimes a brother (take, for example one of Caroline Herschel’s biographies)—in the nominal subject’s life. Thus, Henrietta’s minimization in Isabella’s life story stands out as an editorial choice. If she were male, her influence on Isabella might well have been overstated. The authors and editors of these biographies certainly knew who Henrietta was; much of Isabella’s work is dedicated to her. So, perhaps such decisions were in an effort to avoid detracting from Isabella’s own capabilities as a storyteller, to avoid calling into question whether Isabella belonged in the intellectual community on her own merit rather than on her sister’s. Perhaps biographers somehow did not find her significant.

Scholars doing the recovery work (and researchers using said work) must confront some difficult questions: What do we do with women like Henrietta? Can her contributions to Isabella’s books be noted without detriment to the reputation Isabella carefully built for herself? Does that matter? Thirteen short biographies are certainly not a large enough dataset or corpus to begin drawing conclusions, but women like Henrietta, the quiet contributors, should be kept in view as more information is added to CBW. What biographers omit carries as much weight as what they choose to include.6


  1. In fact, she was the first woman to be elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (1892). 

  2. Note that analyses for all 13 biographies may not be publicly available yet. 

  3. Kay Chubbuck. “Introduction.” Letters to Henrietta. Northeastern University Press, Boston, 2002, pp. 1–25. 

  4. In a letter to her publisher, John Murray, however, Bird insists her letters have not been altered for publication. 

  5. After Henrietta’s death, Isabella published Hymns and Poems of the Late Henrietta A. Bird through James Taylor publishing in 1881. 

  6. For more information on CBW, please see Lloyd Sy’s blog post, “BESS: A Very Short Primer.” 

Cite this post: Mikki Stacey. “Sister of Notable Woman: Henrietta Bird”. Published October 06, 2020. Accessed on .